Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Criticism of NYC School Admission Exam Builds

Admission to New York City’s top public high schools is based on performance on a single exam. Whether intended or not, the result has been a shocking lack of diversity, especially when compared against the school district’s demographics. 

The push for change is building. While former Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed the exam, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to end the single test admissions system.

The single test standard to gain admittance to the elite eight schools, which include the renowned Stuyvesant High School, has been in place since 1971.

At Stuyvesant this year, about 2 percent of the school’s students were Hispanic — compared to a 40 percent Hispanic enrollment districtwide. Similarly, only 1 percent of Stuyvesant students were black, compared with 28 percent districtwide. The largest proportion of students by far are Asian, at 73 percent of the school’s enrollment.

“I do not believe a single test should be determinative, particularly for something that is as life-changing for so many young people,” said de Blasio, according to Bloomberg News. “We have to determine what combination of measures will be fair.”

Bloomberg reported that the state Legislature is considering passing a law that would broaden admission to other factors such as class grades, attendance, and scores on other tests. Teachers unions are supporting such changes.

The current Specialized High School Admissions Test is a verbal and math multiple choice exam. Other elite schools covered by the test are Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science.

The New York Times published a column critical of the system by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation entitled, “Elite, Separate, Unequal: New York City’s Top Public Schools Need Diversity.”

The editorial noted that at the eight specialized schools this year only 7 percent of seats were offered to Latino students. The editorial warned that the small number of blacks and Latinos offered spots at top schools when they are the overwhelming majority of the district’s students, “raises red flags about the fairness of the admissions system.”

He suggested that New York look at how the Chicago Public Schools changed its elite magnet school admissions process. He wrote that while 30 percent of students are admitted to the top schools based solely on grades and test scores, the rest of students are admitted based on those who score highest within four separate socioeconomic tiers.

The tiers are created based on census tracts. Chicago officials broke out the tiers based on the following factors: median family income, percentage of single-family homes, percentage of homes where English is not the first language, percentage of homes occupied by the homeowner, adult education attainment levels, and test scores from the school attendance areas.

Therefore, 70 percent of the seats offered are evenly split between the four tiers. The highest-scoring students from each tier level are admitted — keeping in mind that the scores from the lowest socioeconomic tier tend to be lower.

The plan has resulted in more diversity — though the top schools still are not diverse as the overall enrollment.

“Fears that students from low-income areas would fail have not come to pass, and Chicago’s top selective schools still rank as the top three in the state,” Kahlenberg wrote.